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Article posted: 12/10/2012 11:29 AM

Libertyville taxpayers may be asked if they will pay to save Brainerd building

By Mick Zawislak

The shuttered former Libertyville High School has received national recognition for its architecture and association with the community, but do residents consider it enough of a treasure to pay more in taxes to save it?

That's what those who envision what is known as the Brainerd building -- constructed in 1916 and boasting the late actor Marlon Brando as an alum -- want to find out after years of fundraising have fallen well short of being able to again open the doors.

"In general, people are pretty amazed. It's a really cool building. It's got some great potential," said Scott Adams, a member of the executive board of Brainerd Community Center, Inc.

Adams and other members of the nonprofit group, which subleases the facility at Route 176 and Brainerd Avenue from the village, hope the original Libertyville Township High School can again become a hub of local activities.

Enough people agree the idea should at least come to a general vote. Adams and other group members on Tuesday plan to present petitions with more than 1,000 signatures to the village board, far more than the amount needed to have an advisory referendum placed on the April ballot.

There are two ways to put a question on the ballot. Voters can gather enough signatures or the village can adopt a resolution to do so. If the first route is chosen, reaching the threshold of signatures would require the village to submit the petitions to the Lake County Clerk's office on the residents' behalf.

"We don't have a choice of not doing it," Mayor Terry Weppler said. "It's a formal process."

However, the proposed question is vague, asking whether the village shall "financially support" the renovation of the Brainerd building and adjoining Jackson Gym, which was completed in 1929, "through a property tax increase".

"They would like us to sell some bonds," Weppler said. "I told them we could only do that if the public supported it through a referendum."

Adams estimated it would take $3.5 million "to get the doors open" with a concentration on the school building. The gym would be mothballed, he said, with any future improvements to be paid from revenues generated by the endeavor.

For the owner of a $400,000 home, the tab would be nearly $50 per year, he said.

"We're not trying to sugarcoat anything," he said. "We don't intend by any means to come back to the public for any additional funds."

Both buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and were included on Landmark Illinois' 2009-2010 watch list.

While potential lures for grants or other funds, the designations don't prevent the buildings from being demolished to make way for athletic fields or parking. That's a possibility that has been discussed by the owner, Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128.

"That figures into people's decision -- what will be there if it's not the Brainerd building?" Weppler said.

He said the village would educate voters on the issues, holding at least one town hall meeting on the topic. A similar session was held regarding a tax increase to pay to fix local roads, which was on the ballot this past spring and approved by voters.

"We don't want to put the village more in debt without an indication that's something the residents agree with," Weppler said. "Because it (the question) is so vague, I just want to make sure everybody knows what they're voting on."

Adams agreed.

"We need to know both sides. We want to find out as much as we can about what people think about this issue," he said.

After more than five years, Brainerd Community Center Inc., is at a crossroad. The date the village can notify District 128 of its intent to end the 25-year lease this year was extended to July 1, 2014 to give the Brainerd group more time to raise money.

But those who have spent countless volunteer hours working on the building, giving tours and managing the logistics of just keeping it from further deterioration are realistic.

"We're seeking that question be put on the ballot on an advisory basis to tell the village what kind of support there is for a tax increase to get that going," said John Snow, another executive board member.

Supporters long have looked beyond the water leaks, falling plaster, broken windows and many other cosmetic and mechanical issues to the image of a revived center bustling with theater and dance groups and hosting banquets, weddings and other gatherings patterned after another former old school -- the Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest.

The difference is more people have become involved in the effort and the facilities have a higher profile after several events including three annual "Wine, Beer, Cigar & Food" festivals, supporters say.

"The newness is, we're going out to the people and testing the support," Snow said.

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